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Roma Head to Braga for First Leg of Europa League Round of 32

Can the Giallorossi make short work of their first-time opponents?

AS Roma v Udinese Calcio - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

I wish Italian clubs treated the Europa League with more respect, but they very rarely do. The tournament is often reduced to a way to give your younger players some minutes, while winning the actual tournament is left to clubs who actually care, like Sevilla. It doesn’t help that the Europa League is relegated to CBS All Access/Paramount+ in the United States, where I watch; I can guarantee you that I’ll be scrounging around for a password to the service with hours to go until kickoff.

Given that, this is (most likely) Roma’s only real chance at silverware this year, so I’d really like it if Fonseca and the boys took it seriously. Add in the fact that winning the Europa League books you a ticket to the group stage of the Champions League, and the fact that the fight for a Champions League spot through league play is going to be the hardest it’s been in nearly a decade? To me, it doesn’t matter if the matches were only shown via telegraph. This competition is a must-win.

Braga vs. Roma: February 18th. 18:55 CET/12:55 EST. Braga Stadium, Braga.

If that doesn’t convince you, pity that bonsai trophy Roma won a while ago. It must be getting lonely.

What To Watch For

Fonseca’s Old Stomping Grounds

AS Roma v Udinese Calcio - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Although the Giallorossi haven’t faced SC Braga before, the Portuguese club is actually a former employer of Paulo Fonseca, who led them to a domestic cup and fourth place in the league. It’s been nearly five years since that one year in charge (he left Braga for Shakhtar Donetsk at the end of the 2015-2016 season), but one has to imagine he might remember a little bit about the club from his time there, and that the club might remember his tactics a bit too.

Will that benefit the obviously bigger and more talented side in Roma, or the scrappy underdog looking to find weak links in Paulo Fonseca’s tactics? We’ll find out on Thursday.

The Return of Richy?

AS Roma v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

I know I said before that Roma should be taking the Europa League seriously this time around. I know that I bemoaned how so many Italian clubs just stuff their lineups with youth players for these matches. Even still, I think Richy Calafiori should get the start if he’s fit.

Leonardo Spinazzola has been having an excellent season, so this isn’t a demotion for him. Instead, it should be seen as some well-deserved rest at the beginning of a rather grueling part of the Giallorossi’s schedule. For Calafiori, this is a chance to show that his good performances when called upon have not been a fluke, and in all honesty, Roma need him to become a Serie A level player soon; it’s not the best idea to have Davide Santon as the “Break Glass In Case Of Emergency” left-back.

Trap Game, Or A Signal Of Fonseca’s Growth?

Football Serie A AS Roma-Udinese Calcio Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

In the NFL, trap games are typically defined as a game where one side is so thoroughly expected to defeat their opponent that they let their guard down, allowing the weaker side to ultimately snag the win. The Giallorossi are no stranger to trap games; honestly, you could describe many former Roma managers through how they responded to playing weaker opponents.

By contrast, Paulo Fonseca has largely reversed Roma’s long-standing tradition of playing down to their competition. Although this has certainly led to some grumbling about his seeming inability to defeat any other side in the top six of Serie A, it has meant that matches against teams like Udinese, SPAL, or Hellas Verona can generally be seen as a near-guaranteed three points. That’s a good sign for the club’s mentality, even if it can frustrate a fanbase who is used to winning against the big boys while struggling against the minnows.

It’ll be interesting to see if this mentality can stretch to the Europa League. Braga aren’t slouches in the Primeira Liga; they’re in third place, after all. Nevertheless, an Italian side as good as Roma should be able to see off any Portuguese side (barring Porto or Benfica, maybe). If they don’t, and they fall back into their old habits of falling for trap games? Paulo Fonseca’s seat will only get hotter and hotter.